Our co-founder, Joe Norton, joined Spark Stories for discussion about starting and running a business. Here is the audio and transcription from the show!
Intro: Welcome to Spark Stories where entrepreneurs and experts share their brand story and how they found their spark. The spark that started it all.
Clarissa: Today I have Mr. Joe Norton of Helium Services.
Joe Norton: Thank you.
Lee: Tell us who you are and what you do and why it matters.
Joe Norton: Well, as you said, my name is Joe Norton. I am the co founder of Helium Services. We are a custom software design and development shop based right here in Atlanta, Georgia about a half mile from the studio.
Clarissa: Welcome. We’re so excited that you’re here. So tell us a little bit about Helium again. Just how you found your spark in starting your business.
Joe Norton: Sure. My partner and I, Terrence Jackson met while working at a boutique consulting firm doing retail analytics, which is a mouthful way to say we did a lot of reporting for very large companies inside of places like Walmart and Target.
Over the years we found we worked really well together and we’re able to come up with some pretty cool solutions to complex problems. Along the way we realized that we should start something on our own. Over a couple of months of conversation it turned out it was the right move for us. We sort of just took the leap. Left the jobs behind and jumped into a new path.
Clarissa: That’s pretty brave. So what was the … How long did you take the jump? How long ago?
Joe Norton: Just under three years ago. We were a little nervous about it, of course, I guess like anyone else would be. We knew if we took the path of putting our why first and putting together our goals, which we’re solving complex problems, building success stories with other companies and people and enjoying the work, that it would eventually pay off. This year seems to be sort of the turning point. We’ve grown to a larger team. We love our team. We’re so proud of them and we’re looking forward to what 2019 brings.
Clarissa: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. You said something very important, “starting with your why”. Can you go a little bit deeper with that and tell them what’s the importance of knowing your why?
Joe Norton: Sure. Of course sometimes you stray away from it, but the concept of being “what it is that really drives you” and really why you want to do this. Paychecks are great. We had great paychecks. But we walked away from them. The business we were working at was starting to drift toward what we consider unethical behavior. One of our big whys is doing something we’re proud of and having integrity in everything we do.
Joe Norton: So that was a big enough why to leave. In starting Helium we knew that there was no way we’d move forward without the first pillar being integrity. Having that as a driver I think was huge for us. We want to enjoy our work. We only have so many years on this earth. We really want to spend time working with folks that want to build a true success stories, that want to do it with integrity and have fun along the way. So that was sort of our big why. I don’t think we knew that was our why when we started. But over time we’ve really sort of centered in on that concept and we’re trying to push that throughout everything we do every day.
Clarissa: Okay. So knowing your why. Having those very strong brand values.
Joe Norton: Sure.
Clarissa: What is something, that connects back to the love and to the drive of the business?
Joe Norton: I think one of the things is building success stories. When a client or potential client comes to us, the first thing we do is get to know them and understand their problem. Then we come back and we cast a vote to determine if we want to work on this project and if we want to work with this client. Money’s great, but if you’re not a high integrity person, you’re not a good fit for us. If it’s a project that just doesn’t get us excited, then we’re not going to bring our A game to it or at least as high of an A game as we could be if we’re excited about it.
Joe Norton: So one of those things is enjoy the work. Well, if you’re not going to enjoy it, we don’t do the work. If it’s not going to build a success story, it doesn’t excite us as much. So we want to find stuff that our team will be proud of, excited by, and fun. Implementing that voting system was a big turning point for us.
Clarissa: Okay. That’s a really neat idea. Now, do you incorporate the entire team? Is it just you and Terrance, your co-founder?
Joe Norton: Oh, the teams listening! So now … No. Right now Terrence and I are typically voting. We pull folks on the team to say, “hey, what do you think about this?” But that’s something that we want to start getting more feedback from them on.
We went from two to three to 10 a matter of six months. So our team scaled up as we’ve brought on bigger projects. We’re still working out those kinks. As our team evolves and their strengths in the business grow, then we’re going to lean on them more and more. Like I said, we have an amazing team so they’ll certainly be part of that soon.
Clarissa: That’s awesome. Like you said, in a short span of time, you’ve grown your team out. What has been one of the biggest challenges of doing that in growth as a leader?
Joe Norton: I think it’s probably two things. One would be celebrating small victories. As the founder of the company, you work all the time even when you’re not at work. I’m thinking when I’m driving. I’m thinking when I’m waking up in the morning, I think as I fall asleep. You never stop thinking which means you never stopped working, which means your probably not celebrating small victories.
If you don’t celebrate small victories, you get tired and frustrated. So one thing is figuring out how to celebrate those small victories. It is just getting out there and saying, guys, let’s take an hour off early and go celebrate this project being finished. I’d say that’s probably the biggest piece for us.
Clarissa: The biggest piece. That’s good. So if you had to offer some advice to someone who was thinking about leaving their existing organization to start their own, what would that be?
Joe Norton: If I could do it all over, I would define my why. I know why I’m doing it. I think that’s the biggest step. I would say if it keeps you up at night and you can’t stop thinking about it for months, then do it. If you’re not sure, start with a side hustle and sort of build into that. So if you have that feeling in your heart, then do what’s best and go for it.
Clarissa: Why did you choose the career path of I guess web development services? What’s your background?
Joe Norton: I don’t know if I chose it. I had no background in web development. I went to school and came out and got a job for Hewlett Packard. I worked there for just under a year and it was very corporate all of the time. It turns out that was not a great fit for me.
So left that and then ended up working for the retail analytics firm. Spent quite a few awesome years there. I got a chance to really hone my skills in targeted solutions driven thinking as well as working on a very dynamic team that could do big things, and do them faster and better. Over time I got to try my hand at a few sort of internal startups if you will. So we had ideas and I got to come up with ideas, pursue ideas and implement ideas over a few years. That was huge. The way that we landed there, like I said, when Terrence and I decided to take the leap, we knew we could help a lot of people.
Joe Norton: So we sort of just jumped into it. I couldn’t do a lick of any web development. Zero. It was all Terrance on the software development side and it was all me on going to find the folks and seeing if they wanted to spend some time with us and also hopefully spend a little money with us. So that’s really how we landed there. If you’d asked me about web development 10 years ago, I’d asked you what it was.
Clarissa: That’s good.
Joe Norton: But like most things in my life, I think they’ve largely come to me and it’s just a matter of jumped on the opportunity when it comes.
Clarissa: So it sounds like a strong aspect of your business model is collaboration and team building. How has that helped in being successful in where you are now?
Joe Norton: I do think we had a leg up. Terrence and I got a long trial run together. We had years together working on projects at our career together. So when we stepped out it wasn’t, “oh, how do we do this or how do we communicate that?” There are times where we can have a conversation by glances back and forth across the room. We know what’s going on. So I think we were able to build that team connection with just the two of us to start.
Joe Norton: Our team has grown fast. That’s part of what this year is about. We have a great team. Can we be better about certain things in terms of making them feel appreciated and making sure that everyone on the team is being heard and connecting and people get to cross functionally work with one another? Yes we can.
I think that’s one of the pieces of the journey is building the right team and it can be hard. Sometimes folks don’t make it on the team and sometimes you might be missing a piece you don’t realize until they show up. But that’s part of what this year is all about is refining and finding sort of that ideal team.
Clarissa: All right. Refining. That’s really good. Sounds like you work really hard over at Helium.
Lee: Now, when you decided to go out on your own, how much thought did you put into being part of a niche? Am I going to just take work from anybody that’s doing interesting work? Did you … Was that any consideration?
Joe Norton: On day one, we would have done anything. If you needed something built, we would do it. Web app, iPhone app, android app, fixing your broken website. Sort of, “you name it, we’d go after it.”
We had one product in mind, which is a website platform sort of like Squarespace. But we do all of the work. Day one you meet with us. We still have this product by the way. But, essentially you come meet with us and we’ll build your website for a low fee. Then there’s just a monthly fee to keep it going. You want to make updates, changes, we’ll do it for you. That was our first product that we came to the market-
Lee: Minimum viable product?
Joe Norton: Yeah. That was our minimum viable product and fortunately it’s still around today. I have quite a few customers on it. But we had to supplement that with consulting. Over the years the consulting projects got bigger and more exciting. We’re doing everything from electronic medical records systems, to working with Emory, to building music player platforms.
Lee: So across all industries?
Joe Norton: Yes, across all industries. We’ve stepped away from some older code basis. Not to get boring with folks, but there are some code bases that we just don’t get involved with. But again, that comes back to our values of enjoying the work and our guys don’t want to work on COBOL stuff. It’s not exciting. We’re not the punch card generation. We want to work on cool, exciting new stuff. That’s where our niche is gone.
Lee: Now, do you have any tips for people who are hiring because you grew pretty rapidly?
Joe Norton: Sure.
Lee: Do assessments? Do you make them jump through hoops? Do you see how they behave? How do you know if the person is who they say they are?
Joe Norton: Sure. We have someone coming in tomorrow. Maybe they’re listening.
Step one is just sit down and chat with us because if you’re not a good fit, you’re not a good fit. It is no different than our clients because you can have the greatest developer in the world, but if they’re a jerk, then no one wants to work with them and neither will your clients.
So first and foremost, we just want folks that get along with our team and just kind of fit a hardworking but laid back, comfortable, honest, transparent vibe. That’s been really the first step.
Step two is you take a test. You can be the greatest guy in the world or gal in the world, but if you don’t nail our tests, it doesn’t work.
So we want to find A players and we can find that pretty quickly with testing.
Then last we typically bring folks on through an apprenticeship program. So you come on with us for three or six months. You work with the team and at the end of that there’s an assessment. If you ticked all those boxes, then an offer is extended. If not, there may be an opportunity for you elsewhere. We’re trying to get pretty particular about who we hire. It can be as much as a four month process to join the team full time.
Lee: It’s the same philosophy of it’s either hell yeah, or it’s a no?
Joe Norton: Yes. Absolutely.
Clarissa: What about your ideal client?
Joe Norton: Our ideal client, it’s typically a midsize company that has a decent understanding of what these budgets costs.
Joe Norton: I think sometimes folks look at something and think, oh, they probably built that mobile app for $10,000 dollars. That is not possible at least not to do it the right way. I’ll just go and say it’s not possible.
Our ideal client is a midsize company that is focused on the solution. If we’re going to do something, we want to do it right. We want to put our name on it. We tell the team imagine whatever work you’re doing showing up on a billboard in rush hour and also on the front page of Google. Are you confident in it? We don’t want to put something out that they’re not.
Joe Norton: So it’s really about finding folks that want to build solutions. We’ve been fortunate to work with folks that understand that and that see the big picture.
Lee: So now if somebody want to the learn more and have more substantive conversation, what’s the best way to find you? What are your website coordinates?
Joe Norton: Sure. Our website is seonda.wpengine.com. We’re big on the personal touch. The phone number at the bottom is mine. So you will call me directly. We’re very big on direct lines of communication with folks.
Lee: Well thank you so much for sharing your story.
Joe Norton: Thank you.